The editor of the Boston Globe, Brian McGrory, may have finally figured out the solution to the business troubles of newspapers — keep billing dead customers.
"We get people's credit card," Mr. McGrory said today in an appearance at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "We keep billing them every month until six months after they are dead."
Mr. McGrory didn't get into the question of whether his paper's paying advertisers would be interested in reaching dead newspaper subscribers, or whether such customers are less likely to complain about late or missed deliveries. It wasn't clear whether he was exaggerating for humorous effect or whether he was serious. The Massachusetts attorney general's office did not immediately respond to an inquiry seeking comment on whether such a business practice was something that it would investigate or approve of.
Mr. McGrory's comment came in the course of a wide-ranging discussion on the future of the Globe, which Mr. McGrory freely conceded is a shadow of its former self.
"Required reading? It's not," he conceded.
"Our circulation has plummeted," he said, tracing a decline from 800,000 newspapers sold on Sunday and 500,000 daily to 350,000 on Sunday and 220,000 daily, though he said that the paper's Web sites attract 400,000 unique visitors on a busy day.
He said the paper had closed its eight foreign bureaus, closed its domestic news bureaus in Silicon Valley, Chicago, New Orleans, and New York, and reduced the size of its Washington bureau by half. Under the previous editor, Marty Baron, and the previous owner, the New York Times company, the paper's overall newsroom headcount was cut to 360 from 540. Mr. McGrory said last month he decided to lay off another half-dozen "really good" reporters who had been working on local news.
Even with those reduced numbers, Mr. McGrory said, the paper still probably has "more journalists, more reporters per subscriber" than any other newspaper in the country. He said it is also one of the most expensive metropolitan dailies, charging more than $700 a year for a subscription.
With classified advertising revenue disappearing, circulation down, and even digital revenue declining, Mr. McGrory said, "the business model is definitely broken."
Mr. McGrory insisted, however, that the journalism model is not broken. He said his goal, 15 months into his editorship, is to make sure the newsroom is the highest quality, and to make the Globe "the paper of interest" in the city.
"We are trying to double down on accountability and investigative reporting," he said, arguing that without the Globe, mobster Whitey Bulger would still be killing people in South Boston, and Catholic priests would still be molesting children while the church covered it up. He said the Globe had added a Sunday real estate section and would focus on arts coverage and politics while revamping its Web sites. He said the paper would start a Web site devoted to covering the Catholic Church and has done some international reporting, including sending reporters to Russia after the Boston Marathon bombing to investigate the bombers' background. The paper also recently sent a reporter to South Korea to cover the international growth of Boston favorite Dunkin' Donuts. He said the paper is considering expanding coverage of Rhode Island or of New Hampshire or Northern New England, and that the paper offered home delivery in Fort Myers, Florida, during Red Sox spring training.
"Ultimately quality and a greater spirit of entrepreneurship will help us grind out of this downturn," he said.
Mr. McGrory offered some commentary about recent troubles at other local newspapers. "It's tragic what's going on in Newark," he said about layoffs at the New Jersey Star-Ledger. Of Digital First CEO John Paton, Mr. McGrory said, "he's got preferred parking at bankruptcy court, because he keeps going back there."
He called sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy "one of the best sports columnists in the country," though he acknowledged "there have been a few awkward moments" related to criticism of the Red Sox, which are owned by the Globe's new owner, John Henry.